The 2020 BMW i3 is the company’s revolutionary electric car. Which is now six years old. Revolutions don’t always happen quickly, it seems. Or perhaps it’s an indication of the i3 being ahead of its time in some ways.
BMW approached the notion of an electric vehicle (EV) from a fresh direction. The requirements of EVs are, unsurprisingly, often different to those of conventional cars. While gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles can replenish their energy supply with relative ease, EVs need to make the most of each tiny watt’s-worth of power.
Weight must be avoided as much as possible. So BMW uses an aluminum "tub" onto which things like suspension parts, a battery pack and motor mounts are affixed. Over the tub is a body made mostly from carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP), which is as strong as steel but with half the heft.
Special consideration has been given to the i3’s footprint. Not just the contact patches of the large-diameter/skinny-width tires, but also sustainability in the manufacturing process, and the materials used inside and out. Even the owner’s manual is made from recycled paper.
There’s nothing else quite like this premium compact hatchback. It’s a car for cities, so a high driving position and excellent outward vision are essential factors in the design. Just as city buildings go up instead of out, so does the i3. This creates plenty of headroom and the rear seats will take a couple of average-sized adults with ease.
More charging stations are also coming on line in cities, bringing us to the aspect where the i3 is starting to show its relative age. Maximum range of the battery is 153 miles. A while back that would have been good, but not now. BMW is smart enough to offer a range-extended version with a small engine acting as an onboard generator, making this variant a kind of plug-in hybrid.
Think of the i3 as a significant step toward more electron-powered personal transportation. It’s also a lot less expensive than other premium EVs like the Jaguar I-Pace and the upcoming Mercedes-Benz EQC 400 4Matic.
What’s New for 2020?
The previously standard 12 months’ subscription to Apple CarPlay smartphone integration has been extended to 20 years. An audible pedestrian warning is now standard, operating at speeds below 19 mph. BMW hasn’t raised prices this year. See the 2020 BMW i3 models for sale near you
What We Like
- Instant acceleration
- Tidy handling
- High-tech cabin
What We Don’t
- Inconvenient rear passenger doors
- Pricier than some rivals
$45,445 to $52,495. Bear in mind that there are state and federal incentives to buying a vehicle powered by "alternative" fuels, which will offset the retail price. And many cities offer free charging in free parking areas.
The i3 comes with a 42-kWh lithium-ion battery pack that powers an electric motor developing 170 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a particular way of measuring efficiency in electric vehicles, known as miles per gallon gasoline equivalent (MPGe). One gallon of gas is equivalent to 33.7 kWh of energy.
The i3 is estimated to consume 30 kWh every 100 miles, which works out to an average of 113 MPGe (124 MPGe in the city, 102 MPGe on the highway).
The i3s enjoys 184 hp and 199 lb-ft of torque. But it’s also rated at 113 MPGe in combined driving.
The Range Extender version adds a 600cc 2-cylinder gasoline engine (essentially a flat twin from BMW’s motorcycle division), rated at 38 hp and 41 lb-ft. It functions as an onboard generator for the electric motor and doesn’t provide any more muscle. It’s there as an antidote to range anxiety. Both range-extended variants are rated at 109 MPGe combined.
Using a regular household outlet, it takes 20 hours to recharge the battery completely. Plug into a special 240-volt outlet and the job’s done in four hours. There’s also a standard-issue DC fast charger that enables a full charge in just 30 minutes at compatible charging stations.
According to the EPA, range (using just the battery) is 153 miles for both regular and "s" versions. When the range extender is in the picture, the extra weight results in 126 miles of all-electric range, but a fully charged battery and a full tank of gas (which holds 2.4 gallons) will take the i3/i3s for 200 miles.
Both the i3 and the i3s are rear-wheel-drive (RWD).
Standard Features and Options
The 2020 BMW i3 is a 4-seater hatchback that comes in straight-ahead form ($45,445), range-extended REx form ($49,295) and the sportier i3s variants ($48,645, or $52,495 with the range extender).
The i3s comes with 20-in wheels with wider tires, stiffer suspension and a Sport setting within the selectable driving modes.
Then there are Deka World, Mega World, Giga World and Tera World subtrims.
The Deka World trim level has cloth upholstery, 19-in alloy wheels, full LED headlights/taillights, an onboard DC fast charger, keyless entry/start, audible pedestrian warning, heated front seats with 8-way manual adjustment, automatic climate control, heated/power-folding side mirrors, self-dimming mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, 50/50 split/folding rear seats, front/rear parking sensors, Apple CarPlay, Bluetooth phone connectivity and BMW’s iDrive infotainment system with a 6.5-in display, navigation, a USB port and HD/satellite radio.
Mega World has simulated leather upholstery and its navigation system is augmented by real-time traffic information. Giga World adds different 19-in wheels, a moonroof, leather/wool interior trim and a universal garage door opener. Tera World has its own design of 19-in wheels and a full leather interior with textile accents.
A Technology and Driving Assistant package includes navigation with real-time traffic updates, adaptive cruise control, LED headlights with automatic high beams and cornering lights, forward-collision mitigation with automatic emergency braking and a universal garage door opener.
Additional options include a moonroof, 20-in alloy wheels, parking assistance (self-steering — not available in the i3s), Wi-Fi, wireless charging, 16-speaker Harman Kardon surround-sound system and blue seat belts in the i3s.
Cargo space behind the rear seats measures 15.1 cu ft. and 36.9 cu ft. with those seats folded down. That’s not bad for a compact hatchback.
The i3 comes with stability control, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and six airbags (front, front-side and full-length side-curtain). Optional safety features include a rearview camera, adaptive cruise control and forward-collision mitigation with automatic braking.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has not crash-tested the i3. But the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave the car its top score of Good in all major categories except for rear crash protection, where it was deemed Acceptable.
Behind the Wheel
Vehicle information is provided by twin displays (one behind the steering wheel and one in the center of the dash). Every i3 comes with a distinctive combination of interior materials, and while not every theme will meet with universal approval, none of them are dull. Despite the gadgetry, most functions are easy to learn and use.
The i3s rides just under half an inch lower, and its Sport mode sharpens responses of the steering and throttle. It sprints from standstill to 60 mph in a fairly quick 6.8 seconds and has a top speed of 100 mph. The regular i3 reaches 60 mph in 7.2 seconds and maxes out at 93 mph.
Rear passengers enjoy spacious accommodation for such a small car, with adequate legroom and generous headroom. Access isn’t straightforward, however. The rear-hinged back doors can’t open unless the front doors are open (there’s no B-pillar), which is particularly inconvenient if another car is parked alongside.
The i3 also brings the concept of one-pedal driving. This sounds off-putting, but it’s easy to get to grips with. Because of the regenerative brake function (which captures and stores energy that might otherwise be lost), the car slows as the driver eases off the throttle. The more pronounced the lift-off, the more forceful the slow-down. In city driving, this stop/go ability is far less tiring and stressful than having to dance the right foot between two pedals.
What might be surprising is the i3’s well-tuned handling, courtesy of a nearly 50/50 front/rear weight distribution and BMW’s expertise in RWD dynamics. This is an engaging EV for less than half the price of a Tesla Model S. Happily, it’s also supple and quiet in normal driving, with suitably upscale manners.
Other Cars to Consider
2020 Chevrolet Bolt EV — Less spacious than the i3 and not as high-class, but with a remarkable range of 238 miles.
2020 Hyundai Kona Electric — An all-electric subcompact SUV/crossover. Priced from $37,190 and with a range of 258 miles. Not in the same premium bracket as a BMW, but we’re thinking that EV enthusiasts aren’t necessarily as bothered by status as they are about range.
2020 Tesla Model 3 — An attractive premium compact sedan that starts at $40,000 and can cover up to 322 miles.
Electric cars are still relatively novel, so there isn’t a healthy used market right now. A pre-owned Tesla Model S would still be more expensive than a new i3.
Choosing between the regular and range-extended versions depends on how the 2020 will be used. If it’s short commutes only, the regular version should be fine. Make sure there’s $2,350 in the budget for the Technology and Driving Assistant package. Find a BMW i3 for sale